My decision to travel through China was rather spontaneous. It was March 2012, and I was travelling around Malaysia. The weather was getting uncomfortably hot and after seeing so many so-called China towns I thought it would be interesting to see the real thing. Besides, April would be spring in China.
I had no itinerary to offer as part of the visa process and only enough time to apply for a rush visa. But it was approved and off I went, on an Air China flight to Beijing. I researched and booked my travels as I went along and other than the Terracotta Army Warriors and Horses in Xian, Shaanxi province, I think I saw most of the highlights: Beijing, Shanghai, Suzhou, Dali, Lijiang, Guilin/Yangshuo, and Hong Kong.
Many people visit China as part of a tour, mainly because it is notoriously difficult to do it on your own. But it doesn’t have to be if you are willing to put in the planning time and perhaps spend a little more money than you would normally spend in other Asian destinations. At the same time, there are those travellers who thrive on taking local buses and trains such as the Globe and Mail journalists who wrote about taking a train from Chengdu in Sichuan province to Xining in Qinghai province: 1,528 km trip, 16 stops, 21 hours and 14 minutes, and several squat toilets (“Notes from a long, long train ride through China”). Yes I’ve done those trips but now prefer leaving such adventures to others.
Instead, I mostly took planes (Air China and China Southern Airlines), making arrangements through the travel desk at the hotel where I was staying where there was usually one person who knew some English. If I was doing it from home I would use the on-line travel search engine kayak.com, which allows you to compare costs and schedules of various airlines, and then book and print your tickets.
I did take one train—a short and extremely comfortable ride from Shanghai to Suzhou. The ticket agent would not even consider my request until I had someone at my hotel write out all the details in Mandarin. I also took a local bus from Dali to Lijiang, a cruise boat down the River Li, and had hotels send a car and driver to pick me up at several airports.
The two great challenges about travelling in China is that hardly anyone speaks English and, secondly, taxi drivers are very reluctant to pick a foreigner up. What it means is that you have to be very well organized and always have a back-up plan. Such as always carrying a good map with the street names in English and Mandarin. Similarly with subway and bus maps. When you go out, never assume you can catch a taxi back. If stuck, go to the biggest hotel you can find and talk the doorman into getting a taxi driver for you. Be sure to carry the name and address of your hotel in Mandarin too.
I booked my hotels through Agoda, which I found to be totally reliable. Agoda includes hotel information in Mandarin on the voucher. If you stay at hotels frequented by foreigners it is more likely that there will be a travel/tour desk with someone who speaks English.
China, of course, is a very populated country and buses and subways can be packed. You simply have to be prepared to squeeze onto them or you may never get back to your hotel. At airports, people will walk right past you and plunk their baggage in the check-in stall although you were next in line. You soon learn to protect your place with arms spread wide.
Here is how I did it.
- Highlights: Thiemann Square, Forbidden City, Great Wall, National Museum of China, cultural attractions
- I flew here from Singapore
- Excellent metro system with readily available maps; they call out the station names in English; think about booking a hotel within walking distance of a station
- Easy to book a group tour to the Great Wall at Badaling; I arranged for a car and driver to take me to the less visited section at Mutianyu
- Highlights: Second largest city in the world; The Bund; Huangpu River; People’s Park; Yuyuan Bazaar and Garden; the skyscrapers are incredible so if you lose your way all you have to do is look up to find your bearings
- I flew here from Beijing
- Excellent metro system; hop-on, hop-off bus
- Stayed in one of the inexpensive rooms (the elevator doesn’t go that high) at the historic Astor House Hotel, which is an easy walk to The Bund
- Highlights: Grand Canal. Suzhou Museum, and the UNESCO World Heritage gardens that are masterpieces of Chinese landscape design, especially Lingering Garden, Master of Nets Garden, Humble Administrator’s Garden, and Blue Wave Pavilion Garden
- I took a train here from Shanghai
- English maps of the city are readily available; however, almost impossible to get a taxi to stop
- Next time I would hire a guide to take me to the top four gardens and other sites and to nearby water towns
- Highlights: Most culturally diverse province in China; each minority has its own distinct dress, culture and language; fascinating day trips into the countryside; my favourite stop in the country
- I flew from Shanghai to Kumming and from Kumming to Dali; I stayed overnight in Kumming but would not do so again
- I stayed at Jim’s Tibetan Hotel, which I would recommend; it is a small and friendly place with a colourful mix of Bai and Tibetan styles; a much needed respite
- The hotel arranged for a driver to pick me up from the airport
- I took two all-day, very affordable tours into the countryside, arranged by the hotel; both were trip highlights
- Highlights: An ancient town within a dramatic landscape; culturally very interesting; near the Tiger Leaping Gorge
- Jim’s Tibetan Hotel in Dali arranged for the bus ticket here; 3-hour bus ride; with hindsight, I should have taken the all-day mini-bus ride instead
- Everyone complains about the crowds in Lijiang; I chose to stay at the Bruce Chalet in nearby Shuhe Town; the taxi driver had a difficult time finding the Chalet and had to call for better instructions so be sure to carry telephone numbers because just about everyone seems to have a cell phone
- I would recommend the Bruce Chalet; the young owner is from Hong Kong, studied in Canada and speaks excellent English; it is also very pleasant with a lovely garden
- The Bruce Chalet arranged for a van and driver to take guests to the Tiger Leaping Gorge; I paid no attention to the logistics and that was a mistake
- The Bruce Chalet also arranged for a taxi to take me around for a day
- Highlights: From here you take a cruise along the River Li that winds “like a blue ribbon”, surrounded by soaring limestone peaks that look like “jade hairpins”
- I flew from Lijiang to Guilin
- I stayed at the Guilin Jing Guan MingLou Museum Hotel; great location; I should have stayed more than one night for a better look at Guilin
- The hotel made arrangements for the Li River cruise to Yangshuo (80 km); if I did it again I would have taken one of the small bamboo boats instead of the cruise
- Highlights: I was the only cruise passenger to stay in Yangshuo
- I stayed at the Yangshuo Magnolia Hotel
- There are several local tour operators in the village and lots of tour options
- The hotel arranged for transportation to Guilin airport
- Highlights: Everyone knows this city!
- Excellent subway system; easy to get around
- I stayed at the Park Hotel on Chatham Road in Tsim sha Tsui, Kowloon; I had originally booked an inexpensive place but after they sent me instructions about getting to it without anyone following me I decided to upgrade; lots of places to walk to from this hotel including the excellent Hong Kong Museum of History
Earlier this year I ran into many young Chinese travellers in Sri Lanka. I found them generally to be confident, courteous and friendly. Many spoke some English. So travel in China is bound to get easier.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2013